Notes and Editorial Reviews
Purcell's fourth and last full-scale semi-opera, The Indian Queen, is often passed over in favour of its longer and more rounded predecessors, especially King Arthur and The Fairy Queen. The reasons are plentiful: Thomas Betterton, with whom Purcell collaborated, never finished his reworking of an early Restoration tragedy and even if he had torn himself away from his business interests in 1695, Purcell would not have been alive to set the remaining music for Act 5. As it happened, Henry's brother Daniel set the masque from the final act after Betterton had hired an anonymous writer to finish his adaptation. No one can deny that neither verse nor music achieved the heights imagined in the original collaboration; given the quality of the masques in Purcell's large `dramatick' operas (including Dioclesian, of course), there is an undoubted sense of anticlimax. To cap it all, the story-line - the tale of a doomed queen - hardly encouraged rejouissance of a conventional type, or the full range of characterful scenes upon which Purcell thrived. More fundamental, as Curtis Price points out, is that the play was not ideal for conversion into an 'opera' in the first place. Purcell must have recognized that the subject matter (delivered in antiquated heroic couplets) was to provide him with few avenues for his imagination to reign. That there is so much fine music here is proof of the composer's undaunted spirit and peerless ability.
The difference between the Purcell Simfony's graceful and intimate performance and this new account from Christopher Hogwood is that the latter makes us realize that for all the constraints, the score is not inherently small-scale and that it warrants all the subtlety of colour that can be achieved using 12 soloists and a decent sized choir and orchestra. Needless to say, Hogwood conveys a consistent, logical and meticulous understanding of the score. The orchestral playing is crisp and transparent (as in the Symphony of Act 2), the Academy of Ancient Music's articulation allowing the integrity of the inner parts to be heard to the full without compromising blend. Amongst a distinguished line-up of singers, John Mark Ainsley gets the lion's share and is perhaps marginally more effective as the Indian Boy than as Fame, but such gloriously mellifluous and controlled singing can only enhance the reputation of this work. Emma Kirkby is in fine fettle and she executes the justly celebrated song "I attempt from love's sickness" with her usual communicative panache.
Then comes the pleasurably contrasted voice of Catherine Bott: "They tell us that your mighty powers" could not be in better hands. David Thomas as Envy, with his two followers in the Act 2 masque, highlights this brilliant scene as the work of a true connoisseur of the theatre. Mature Purcell is most strongly felt in the deftly ironic invocation by the conjurer, Ismeron, whose "Ye twice ten thousand deities" is delivered authoritatively by Gerald Finley, though the lulling to sleep, before the God of Dream's gloomy nonprediction, is strangely unconvincing. Gardiner is particularly effective here.
Taken as a whole, the quality of music shines very brightly in this reading. It is perhaps a touch calculated in places. I prefer the Purcell Simfony's melting chorus "While thus we bow before your shrine"; indeed, there is a tenderness in that recording which is touching but Hogwood's new version has to stand as the current favourite. The inclusion of Daniel Purcell's Act 5 masque is interesting but not much more than that. He evidently excelled himself but he also reaffirms Henry's superiority on all levels.
-- JF-A, Gramophone
Reviewing original release of The Indian Queen